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Best Way to Fix MLB Playoffs? Un-alignment

Of all the major American sports, baseball is the one most steeped in tradition. September is near synonymous with the thrill of pennant races, and the elements of fun within those races: magic numbers on the way to wild finishes, home run and batting title chases, and epic collapses such as the 2011 Red Sox, 1969 Cubs, or 1951 Dodgers. 

To show how little things change, this year’s standings indicate the possibility of yet another wild finish. Specifically, eight AL teams are vying for five playoff slots, and teams in first place are pushing to win their divisions so they can avoid the new wild-card knockout game. After 17 seasons of division runner-ups settling for the wild card, September is fun again. 

But behind all the tension and hope for teams still in the race is a troubling fact. Divisional play, begun in 1969 and expanded in 1995, and the unbalanced schedule, begun in 2001, has distorted competition. That tandem has ruined a hallowed tradition, a regular season where that year’s best teams rise to the top. Instead, today’s races, like most in the divisional and post-1994 strike era, are tainted by suppressed or inflated win totals, not to mention post-season paths blocked by having to win the division.

The 2009 tiebreaker game between the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins is famous for its drama, repeated lead changes and a walk-off finish in extra innings. It was also a game between two mediocre teams that should not have occurred. Both came into the tiebreaker at 86-76, a record the Texas Rangers eclipsed at 87-75; the latter record was achieved while playing better competition. Put plainly, the Rangers had their work nullified by geography. 

As for the Twins, their 45-27 record against a very weak AL Central led to them winning the division despite 10-22 and 19-21 marks against the AL East and West. Unlike the Rangers, geography was the Twins’ friend.

And if history repeats first as a tragedy and then as a farce, the new playoff format is worse than the old one. In 2012 the mediocre AL Central winner will again enter the playoffs, but now two division runner-ups will play a knockout game. The old system hurt one participant, now one team goes home and the winner burns its best starting pitcher heading into the Division Series. Such are the consequences of competition contingent on geography. 

This skewing of competition not only punishes deserving teams, it also handicaps other franchises. The Toronto Blue Jays once stood atop the baseball world after back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993, the culmination of a successful run dating back to the mid-1980s. Subpar years immediately after the 1994 strike soon gave way to consistent win totals in the 80s, but no playoff appearances. 

Why? Unlike non-Al East teams the Jays play the Yankees, Red Sox, and the recent upstart Rays 54 times a year, or a third of their schedule. Playing such competition suppressed their record and the divisional system left only two playoff slots open. And even when the Jays finished second, as in 2006, their record was insufficient to attain the wild card. Yet, if Toronto ever reached October they would have as equal a shot at the crown as anyone else; something the 83 win Cardinals proved in 2006. 

If all teams are to harbor hope of reaching October then the regular season must serve its intended purpose, sorting good teams from bad. Major League Baseball has never been the NBA where sub-.500 teams can reach the dance. Gimmicks such as second wild cards and knockout games cannot ensure an equitable and meaningful regular season that culminates in a high caliber October.

But, a hybrid system can accomplish those goals. Major League Baseball should un-align. The two leagues should have no divisions and a balanced schedule along with the post-1994 playoff format where the top four teams per league qualify. This system is simple, competitive, and fair.

An unaligned system immediately achieves several outcomes. First, a team’s record has meaning. If everyone plays everyone the same amount it ensures the top records are earned by outclassing the competition instead of squashing division bottom-feeders 15 out of 18 times a year. Second, bottom-feeders would no longer have their win totals suppressed by an unbalanced schedule, and playoff paths blocked by having to win the division. To that point, the Blue Jays may have reached October under an unaligned system just two years ago when they finished five back of Texas record-wise. Third, un-alignment gives sanity to playoff seeding. Presently, the top seed can draw a No. 4 seed with a better record than the No. 3 seed since the weakest division winner is automatically seeded third. The presumptive top-seeded Rangers may not face the weakest opponent in the ALDS this year. How’s that for rewarding success? Un-alignment simplifies seeding to three words: go by record.

Un-alignment also forces decisions on long-term issues. First, Interleague Play will equalize or end. Either of those options rectifies the inequity of the current setup where even within inter-divisional matchups, teams’ schedules differ. 

This year the eastern divisions faced off yet the Yankees drew the contending Braves but not the wretched Marlins, while the Red Sox had the reverse situation. Second, the DH question is tied to rectifying or abolishing Interleague Play. Equalized, and thus yearlong, Interleague Play eliminates the traditional separation of the leagues that justifies their different rules, while total separation confines overlap to one series a year. Third, a regular season with restored integrity should end conferring home-field advantage in the World Series to the All-Star Game winner. If the regular season matters then home-field advantage throughout October is the biggest reward for pacing the Majors in wins. 

Lastly, un-alignment may stop the institutionalization of tiebreaker games in favor of breaking ties by head-to-head record. While part of baseball lore, the tiebreaker game’s place is as a rare event. It is meant to break a rare regular-season deadlock, ones that predate divisions. Indeed, five of MLB’s 13 tiebreaker games occurred before 1969. Institutionalizing the tiebreaker game, much like divisions, unnecessarily complicates a beautifully simple system. The regular season is too important to the integrity and tradition of MLB to be devalued by divisions, unbalanced schedules, and other gimmicks.

Tim Reuter writes on structural components in sports that impinge on or facilitate competition. He may be reached at tjr2118@gmail.com.

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